Tuesday, November 28, 2017

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring The Distant Near follows three generations of women from an Indian-American family who immigrated from England to America. The novel explores the challenges they face and is told from various points of view over the years beginning in 1965 until 2006. To aid her readers, Perkins has included a small family tree at the front of the novel. The novel follows Ranee Das who is mother to Tara (Starry) and Sonia (Sunny) Das and grandmother to their daughters, Anna (Anu)Sen and Chantal (Shanti) Johnson respectively.

The novel opens in 1965 with Sonia participating in a swimming race at the British Club in Ghana. They are the only dark-skinned people at the club. Sonia, in the lead, loses the race when Ranee pulls her prematurely from the water. The novel is then divided into three parts.

Part I Strangers skips ahead to 1973 and the Das family is enroute from London, England to New York.  Tara, lighter skinned, loves to pretend she's various famous people, her latest being Twiggy. Once in America, she decides instead to channel Marcia from the Brady Bunch. Sonia, who is darker, younger is the academic. They are met in New York by Baba who takes them to their apartment in Flushing, a part of Queens. Sonia's mother questions the safety of the area when she notices most of the people are black. The Das family settle in, with Ranee making her daughters "American" clothes to help them fit in.

The first day of school, Ranee accompanies her children dressed in a green sari and golden bangles on each arm. The girls are tested, and Sonia is placed in the gifted class in grade nine, while Tara is enrolled in grade eleven. Tara immerses herself in school, Sonia finds solace in her diary and starts an Equal Rights Club at school. However Ranee struggles to be happy and fights often with Baba. Sonia's entries about her mother's treatment of Baba lead to change and to Ranee and Baba moving to a new house in Ridgeford, New Jersey. There Tara enrolls in theatre and Sonia is placed in advanced math, physics, English and French.

Part II Travelers sees the Das family struggle to cope with the death of Baba who is killed in an hit and run accident. This part of the story focuses on the journeys the two daughters undertake. Although pressured to return to Kolkata, Ranee decides to stay in the house Baba bought for her. Sonia meets Lou Johnson, a football player nicknamed "Black Lightning". The two of them fall in love during a trip to Paris after winning an essay contest. Lou helps Sonia come to terms with her Baba's death by bringing her into a Catholic church in Paris where she discovers God and inner healing. Tara travels to Bangladesh to scatter her father's ashes in the Ganges. To help her is Amit Sen, the boy whose marriage proposals she has twice turned down. After scattering her father's ashes, Tara travels to her family's ancestral home which was a jute farm that they lost to Muslims after the Partition. There Tara makes her peace with what happened, giving the family gifts. She agrees to marry Amit. Sonia becomes estranged from her mother after eloping with Lou. Even the fact that she is expecting her first child does not move Ranee to reconcile.

Part II Settlers tells the story of Ranee's grandchildren, Chantal Johnson and Anna Sen. Chantal lives in Harlem with her parents, Sonia who is a freelance journalist and Lou who is a sculptor. Her cousin Anna lives mostly in Mumbai with her parents, her mother Tara is a Bollywood actress while her father Amit is a banker. They have a penthouse in Manhattan. Chantal's Grandma Rose (Lou's mother) and her Didu do not get along and when Chantal becomes upset over their fighting they decide to make peace. Anna is sent to Carver Independent School where Chantal attends. Anna finds school  very different from what she's used to but she enjoys her life at Carver -except for the locker room and its lack of privacy. With the help of Chantal and some new friends, Anna remakes the locker room. Chantal's life is marked by her relationship with a rich, white boy named Martin Larsen in her senior year. Chantal doesn't believe they  have a future because Martin's family is so wealthy and they seem to care more for things than people. But Martin proves Chantal wrong when she wrecks his Porsche.

Anna becomes overwhelmingly distraught when Ranee decides to become an American citizen after the 9/11 attacks. However, Ranee decides to remake herself entirely as a modern "American" woman much to the distress of her family and in particular Anna. She decides to attend Lou and Sonia's Catholic church where she finds friendship and community. The novel ends with Ranee living in an apartment on her own and setting up a meeting with her kind young neighbour, Darnell who is black and who is looking for an old-fashioned girl!


You Bring The Distant Near is a multi-generational story which deals with the themes of identity and prejudice as a Bengali family crosses from one culture into another. The focus shifts over time from new immigrants Rajeev and Ranee Das and their daughters Tara and Sonia to their first generation Indian-American granddaughters Anna Sen and Chantal Johnson and returns full circle to Ranee Das, the matriarch of the family. Each character struggles to understand their place within their own families and the world at large. Perkins has stated that the novel is about crossing borders, both geographical borders and the borders of life, from childhood to adult, from culture to culture - and the challenges that entails.

Ranee Das, mother of Tara and Sonia is a Bengali woman who was married at age eighteen in an arranged marriage. When she arrives in America she bears a prejudice against people with dark skin, even though her younger daughter, Sonia is dark skinned. Sonia is well aware of her mother's prejudice against dark skin, something she experiences on the flight to New York. "She...then swivels to take stock of my appearance. I brace myself. Sure enough, that familiar twitch of displeasure passes across her face. It's gone in a moment, but after years of rejecting her Light and Lively skin-bleaching cream, I know what makes her wince. The darkness of my skin." When they arrive in Flushing, New York Ranee sees the many black children and immediately considers their neighbourhood to be dangerous. She refuses to let the girls go anywhere alone and is eager to move from Flushing telling the girls, "I've seen how those Negro boys look at you girls." Sonia objects insisting there is no caste system in America but Ranee tells her,  " 'All people are not treated equally,...It's like that everywhere in the world. In India, people assume that if you have dark skin, you're from a lower caste. Here, it's the same..."

Sonia's elopement with her black boyfriend Lou seems to cement Ranee's prejudice and it isn't until the birth of Tara's daughter, Anna that Ranee finally relents. Ranee's feelings about dark skinned people change - she loves Lou and Sonia's daughter Chantal, who is dark skinned. And by the end of the novel, Ranee is good friends with a young, caring, black man named Darnell who is her neighbour in Flushing, New York. In fact, Ranee acts to set up Darnell with her granddaughter Anna.

Ranee's identity crisis comes well after she's settled in America. She's still not an American citizen when the 9/11 attacks happen but this tragedy motivates her to become one. Up until this point, Ranee has worn a white sari, the clothing of a Bengali widow and has always stated ,"I'll die and Indian." After the citizenship ceremony, Ranee westernizes her clothing, cuts and dyes her hair, learns to drive, attends a baseball game and even asks Chantal to have a slumber party. She joins the Catholic church that Sonia attends, finding that this makes her feel American because she finally experiences a sense of community. Ranee's family worries but she finally explains to them that the attack changed her and that the city began to feel like her home. "It came nearer to my heart, not so distant."

Both Tara and Sonia struggle to find their identity in America. Tara's strategy is to change her identity completely and model herself after famous stars. In London she took on the persona of famous model Twiggy; in New York she attempts to remake herself into Marcia Brady from the Brady Bunch. These identities help her hide her Bengali identity and allow her to fit in. Eventually she drops the personas permanently but Tara's struggle with her identity continues into adulthood. Tara's mother and an unrelated "Auntie" attempt to arrange her marriage to another Bengali, Amit Sen. Tara refuses Amit's proposals twice because "Then Amit and I would become a Bengali couple in an arranged marriage, playing the same roles as our parents and grandparents and Das and Sen family ancestors have for generations."Amit flees to Bangladesh and later invites Tara to visit so she can fulfil her promise to spread her father's ashes in the Ganges River. In Bangladesh Tara realizes that she's spent her youth repudiating her Bengali heritage, never wearing saris (which she now finds quite beautiful), quitting harmonium lessons and Rabindra Sangreet lessons. But after seeing her father's ancestral home, Tara finally comes to terms with her Bengali heritage and this frees her to acknowledge her love for Amit and to accept his marriage proposal.

Sonia's struggle with her identity as an Indian American is tied up in the women's rights movement of the 1970's. Sonia's activism likely began when she was pulled from the pool in 1965 so she wouldn't beat the white children in the swim race. Sonia views her Bengali heritage as patriarchal and considers her Ma's keeping of the Bengali restrictions for widows as being caught in a "patriarchal prison." Sonia is happy for her mother to become American but she also wants her to retain her identity as a Bengali too.

Perhaps the weakest part of Perkins story is that of Chantal and Anna. Chantal seems to be the most settled of all the characters regarding her identity but she judges him on the basis of his family's wealth and their perceived focus on material things rather than people. His love of his Porsche is a "symbol of how my family cares about art and love and justice, while his family cares about...rich people stuff." But when Martin takes the fall for the damage Chantal does to his car, Chantal realizes he does care first about people rather than things. In contrast Anna, who has grown up mostly in Mumbai believes they should preserve their Bengali heritage. She prides herself on truly knowing what being Bengali/Hindu means and this makes her very upset when Ranee undergoes her transformation. It is Uncle Lou who helps her come to terms with everything.
 " 'None of us have to be 100 percent American,' says Uncle Lou. 'What does that mean, anyway? Hyphens, for better or worse, are everywhere now. And the good old U.S.A makes space for lots of identities.'
Maybe he's right. Maybe 'being American' means you still have room in your heart for other things. Old things. Good things."

You Bring The Distant Near, takes it's title from a line from a poem, Thou Hast Made Me Known about welcoming those who are strangers or foreigners. It was penned by famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Perkins captures the complex family dynamics, the care and love each member of the Das family have for one another, and the struggle to retain their culture and beliefs while attempting to understand and adopt those of their new country. The result is a story with characters and situations that seem realistic and interesting, a story that sheds light on the immigrant experience, one repeated generation after generation in America.

Book Details:

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux       2017
303 pp.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark

Rear Admiral Dr.Grace Murray Hopper was born in 1906 in New York City. Grace was the oldest of three children, having a younger brother and sister. Her childhood was filled with typical activities of this time period; she loved needlepoint, playing the piano and reading. Her summers were spent with cousins at a family cottage in New Hampshire. Grace loved to take things apart and one famously remembered incident is her taking apart an alarm clock. When Grace was unable to reassemble the clock she set about taking the others apart until she learned to reassemble the first clock!

Her parents believed that Grace and her sister should have the same quality of education as her brother. To that end, Grace attended Graham School and Schoonmakers School in New York City. Grace eventually entered Vassar College in 1924 after she managed to pass her Latin exam. She graduated in 1928 with a B.A. in mathematics and physics. In 1930, Grace received a Masters degree in mathematics. In 1930, Grace also married Vincent Foster Hopper, whose surname she adopted. She began teaching at Vassar College in 1931, while she worked towards a Ph.D which she earned in 1934, a rare accomplishment for a woman at that time.

When World War II broke out, Grace joined the United States Naval Reserve in 1943. Because of her mathematical background, Grace was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project Harvard. It was at Harvard, in their Cruft's Laboratories that Grace worked on the Mark I computer and later the Mark II and Mark III. A moth caused the Mark II computer to short circuit, an incident that gave rise to the phrase "computer bug".

Grace Hopper  posing with a manual of COBOL and the Mark computer.
Grace envisioned computers having a much wider application and eventually becoming available to both business and the public. To that end she worked to develop a number of computer languages. She developed FLOW-MATIC a programming language that used English phrases instead of mathematical notation. This eventually led to the development of COBOL, a computer programming language used primarily in business and finance.

Grace Hopper had a long and successful career both as a programmer, academic professor and continued to be active in the Navy. Grace received many awards during her lifetime including the first computer science Man of the Year by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969. Grace correctly predicted that one day computers would be small enough to fit on the top of a desk.

In Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, Wallmark captures Grace's "Dare and Do" attitude that marked her life. Grace was determined to live a full life and let nothing hold her back. The colorful illustrations by Katy Wu accent Watermark's story of Grace's remarkable life. Readers see Grace enjoying a plane ride with a barnstormer doing loop-the-loops, teaching students about volume, troubleshooting computer "bugs" and brainstorming a new computer language. Peppered throughout the book are quotes from Grace Hopper. The back of the picture book contains further details: a time line of Grace's life, a Selected Bibliography, Additional Reading About Other Women In Stem, and a feature about Grace's many awards. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is a must-have for libraries and those interested in women who have made important contributions to science.

You can read more about Grace Hopper at the Vassar College website.

Book Details:

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark
New York: Sterling Children's Book                      2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot

Henry Forester, just nineteen years old is a co-pilot of a Eighth Air Force bomber crew stationed in Britain. Today's mission will be Henry's fifteenth but he's nervous. Because the average number of missions pilots survive is fifteen. In order to complete a tour of duty, every airman must fly twenty-five missions.

Henry's pilot is Dan MacNamara, a twenty-five year old married father from Chicago. Today's mission will be his twenty-first and he needs only four more missions to complete his tour.

At the morning briefing at Group Ops, Henry and Dan along with Billy White another co-pilot and the other fliers learn that they will have a long flight across the English Channel to the Belgian coast, down to France, along the northern edge of Switzerland, to southern Germany where their target is a ball bearing factory. Ball bearings are essential to the German war machine.

Dan and Henry go through their preflight checklist for the B-24 Liberator named Out of the Blue, carrying five hundred pound bombs and almost three thousand gallons of fuel. Their plane forms part of a six plane squadron that is part of a four squadron diamond formation. They meet up with other bomb groups over Great Yarmouth on the coast and then continue to fly towards Europe.  As they approach the continent, they encounter flak from the anti-aircraft batteries that line the European coast and then the planes of the Luftwaffe, Focke-Wulf 190s.

Billy White's plane, Battling Queen is shot out of they sky and soon Dan and Henry find themselves under attack. They are forced to bail after their number three engine is destroyed. Henry saves Dan's life by pulling him out of the plane, only to watch in horror as Dan is killed by a Messerschmitt pilot who strafs him as he parachutes to the ground. Henry quickly finds himself under attack and although his parachute is ripped, he manages to survive the hard landing with an injured ankle.

Henry limps through snow and forest towards Neuf-Brisach when he encounters an older man riding a bicycle. His confusion leads to a comical attempt to speak French but this moves the man to decide to help him. He informs Henry that he is in the Alsace region, a French province which was annexed by Germany four years earlier. The man, a teacher before the war took all his pupils, takes Henry to the abandoned schoolhouse to hide him. He believes Henry's foot is broken and that he will need the care of a doctor in a hospital. Eventually arrangements are made to transport Henry to a hospital. With the help of another man, Henry is hidden in a long flat-bottomed boat, "heavily loaded with red and white cabbages." The plan is to travel down the Grand Canal d'Alsace to Basel, a city on the border with Switzerland. In Basel, the teacher has a cousin who has promised to help.
A B-24 bomber.

However, when they reach Basel, the boat is searched by Swiss soldiers who narrowly miss bayoneting Henry, hidden in a crawl space beneath the crates of cabbages. Unfortunately the teacher's cousin refuses to help them, so Henry, fortified with a swig of brandy and delirious from the pain and infection, is left by a church where he is discoverd by Red Cross nurses and taken to a hospital.

Henry wakes in hospital to find that his ankle has been drained of the infection and the bone set. After surgery, Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador, Samuel Watson meets with Henry to tell him that the neutrality of Switzerland's government cannot be ensured. Because Henry just showed up at the door of the hospital, he is not yet classified as a prisoner of war. This means he can wear civilian clothes during his transport to Adelboden, an internment camp for Americans and therefore may have a chance of slipping away. He can then attempt to cross through Switzerland and into France, making his way across the Pyrenees into Spain and then to Portugal where he can take a boat back to England. Henry agrees to this and so begins a remarkable and dangerous journey that will change Henry forever.


Under A War Torn Sky is a thrilling, action-packed novel about an American pilot who is shot down over France in World War II and attempts to make his way through war-torn Europe and back to Britain. This novel by Laura Malone Elliot is an exemplary work of historical fiction that accurately presents the circumstances the French Resistance operated under and portrays what many Allied pilots endured after being shot down by the Nazis. Elliot based her novel on the experiences of her father, also a B-24 pilot who was shot down and survived behind German lines in France for several months.

The hero of the novel is Second Lieutenant Henry Wiley Forester, a mere 19 years old at the time he is shot out of the sky by a Messerschmitt. Henry agrees to a plan to make his way through war-torn Europe in an attempt to return to Britain to continue fighting. He agrees to try to escape for two reasons; to impress his harsh father Clayton who has a low opinion of Henry and also because he doesn't want to be considered a coward.  In this way Elliot sets up her main character as the archetypal hero who undertakes a journey that is both dangerous and life-changing.

Henry's physical journey is harsh enough, walking on a barely healed ankle, not knowing where his journey will take him next, enduring hunger and cold, shunted from one place to the next, at risk constantly of being captured and interrogated by the Germans. Along the way he is helped by the most unlikely of people, all doing their part to resist the Nazis. Henry travels from Alscae to Thun, Switzerland, to Montreux, onto Geneva to Annecy and then to Grenoble. He spends time with a family near Vassieux-en-Vercours where he befriends a young boy named Pierre. Henry is taken to a maquis camp in Col de la Bataille (the maquis were French resistance fighters living in the forests and mountains of France during WW II). Eventually Henry falls into the hands of the Nazis when he and a group of pilots are betrayed by a Basque member of the French resistance as they travel through the Pyrenees. Henry finds himself taken to Toulouse where he is tortured for information. While on his way to Lyon for further interrogation, he manages to escape. After spending some time with another maquis group, Henry is eventually recaptured by the retreating German army and but is set free by an elderly German soldier. He is able to make his way to the American troops and after a period of time returns to his beloved home in Virginia.

Throughout Henry's journey he also experiences an internal journey of self-discovery. When he is first downed in France, Henry often recalls the harsh words and actions of his father Clayton who was determined to make Henry into a tough man. Henry joined the Air Corps to prove himself to his father, "to seem worthy of his respect even if he couldn't win his father's love." But his father indicates to Henry that he considers his enlisting a waste. When he is shot down, Henry is determined to survive if only to prove to Clayton that he's strong enough to do so. Henry doesn't understand why his father has been so harsh and unforgiving.

Nevertheless it is often the words of Clayton that Henry has heard throughout his childhood which ultimately change Henry into a man of action. For example, when he's overcome by fear as he approaches the checkpoint in Grenoble, Henry remembers his father's words, "Don't be a coward boy. Only cowards hesitate."  and he races through the checkpoint as he's ordered to do.  Later on when he is attacked by a member of the Resistance to determine if he is English or German, Henry staggers to his feet, prepared to fight, urged on by the voice of his father who often beat him. "Get up, boy, or they'll kick you while you're down." And when he is being taken to Lyon to be tortured further in the hopes that he will betray Madame Gaullioux, it is Clayton's voice that urges him to act to save himself. "Grab the gun, boy!" and "Shoot him boy, shoot him."

By the end of his journey, Henry has now become a man of action. While helping the maquis, Henry saves the lives of several maquisards in a desperate moment. "Henry no longer needed his father's voice to prod him in life-and-death circumstances. He picked up the grenade. It was heavy, cold, scaly. It felt like a thing of death. Henry pulled the pin, stood up, and hurled it."

Through his experiences in war, Henry comes to understand why Clayton has been so harsh. Although his father's strength of will brought Henry's family through the Depression, Henry can see how it might be hard "to shed a tough attitude or a wary distrust of people once the bad times were over." However, Henry is determined that these terrible experiences will not harden him.  He comes to understand that Clayton's harshness towards him was a sign of his love for his son. "What am I going to do with you, boy? Love's got responsibilities. Things you gotta do even if you don't want to.That's the kind of love a real man is capable of."

Henry experiences intense internal conflict because he's been forced to do things that he considers wrong, such as stealing food and clothing and even murder. After murdering his German interrogator and his driver, Henry is filled with horror. Dropping bombs from a plane meant he never saw the people he killed. This is very different. "Henry reached into the stream to wash himself clean of blood. It was everywhere -- his hands, his hair, his clothes, his soul. How would he ever be clean of all that blood? He had killed two men -- not from the anonymity of the sky -- but face to face, with his own hands. Besides that, he'd wanted to kill them, was glad that he killed them so taht he could live. He'd had murder in his heart. He couldn't wash that out. Henry knew that he was changed forever, and not for the better." Henry can reconcile his killing the German soldier but not the chauffeur.

However, Henry uses this experience to save Claudette from a similar situation. Filled with grief, rage and hate over what has happened to her family and her country at the hands of the Nazis, Claudette is determined to murder a young sixteen year old collaborator. Henry intervenes, asking her to consider what she's doing. "Think of Andrea, Claudette. Don't dishonor him with this. He died for France's freedom, not for this. And if you kill her, you're as bad as the Nazis. The one thing I've learned from all this hate and death is that when the war is over, it has to be over. If it's not, we'll just have another bloodbath in a few years. Don't do this Claudette. You're better than the Nazis. I know you are."

Henry's ideas about war also undergo a transformation. When Henry embarks on his journey he has no idea what the war is like on the ground. He never sees the effects of the bombs on the civilian population. But he soon discovers that even bombing a munition plant can have unexpected victims such as little Pierre's father. Henry questions "the strategy of dropping bombs on a country they were trying to liberate" after he tells Pierre that he his a bomber pilot and Pierre is troubled. Henry wonders if his father has been killed by those bombs dropped on the munitions plants the French are forced to work in.

Henry also entered the war with a certain opinion of his role in it. "Henry and his pilot friends had always seen themselves as the saviors of France. He was ashamed of their arrogance." But his experiences with the Resistance make him realize that the people who are part of the French Resistance are the ones who are risking everything.

Under A War Torn Sky really captures the face of the French Resistance from the wealthy widow, to the old school teacher and the teenage guide whose family had sent him to live with strangers and who loves Louis Armstrong. Elliot brilliantly captures the heroics of the French resistance as they fight the Nazis against great odds and often paying a terrible price for their actions. Madame "Gaulloise" a wealthy widow whose son was captured at the Aisne River when Hitler invaded, hides not only Henry but Jews in her rooms. She is eventually captured and taken to Lyon where Klaus Barbie is working to have her executed. Henry is taken in by Pierre's family in Vercors. He realizes that Pierre's mother is not "just a sympathetic mother, taking pity on a lost American boy. She was fighting the war as actively here as he had fought it from the skies. Only her battle seemed scarier, somehow. At least he had a crew with him. She did her part so alone. Secrecy was everything. And if she made a mistake, the price was her son. At least Henry had never had to worry about his actions endangering Ma or Patsy." Pierre's family is denounced and the Nazis murder Pierre's grandfather, arrest his mother who is interrogated and then sent to Ravensbruck. Pierre, alone now is sent to live with the monks. Claudette who helps Henry after he escapes from the Nazis is connected to a maquis group that includes her lover Andre. She sees him murdered when the group is attacked by the Germans.

The sacrifice all these people made on Henry's behalf is not lost on him nor is the terrible reality of war. "...Pierre and his mother, Madame, the teenage guide, the old school teacher -- their faces whirled through his head. He'd never known the potential finality of a good-bye before now. Even when he's held his trembling mother, as he left for England, Henry had been completely convinced that he'd be back, that they'd be eating many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together talking about his adventures. These people - these people who'd risked their lives to save him - he'd never see them again. He felt it in his bones, like an awful ache."

As with the archetypal hero, Henry returns home, his coming unannounced, to the joy of those who wait for him. In Henry Forester, Elliot has crafted an honest, intelligent character whose war experiences do not harden him, but make him more compassionate and understanding. Henry is a realistic character for the time period, drawing strength from his memories of his beloved mother Lilly, hope for a future with the girl he loves - Patsy and his belief in God whom he prays to frequently.

Under A War Torn Sky is a must read for fans of historical fiction. A map of Henry's flight plan and of his journey through Europe would have greatly enhanced this novel. Elliot offers readers a significant and interesting Afterword in which she explains more about the French Resistance and how they were vitally important to the success of D-Day, when the Allied troops finally were able to land on the beaches of Normandy and begin the effort to free Europe.

Book Details:

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot
New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children       2001
284 pp.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee

Halfway Normal is a novel that explores the struggles a young girl encounters reintegrating back into life outside a hospital after her cancer treatment.

Twelve year old Norah Levy underwent two years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is now well enough to return to school. During her illness she was tutored by Ayesha,  a young woman who also survived cancer. This has led to Norah being ahead by a grade in math and science.

Norah's parents divorced when she was nine-years-old and she now lives with her Dad who is a sports journalist and his new girlfriend Nicole, just outside of New York City. Her mom resides in California where she teaches biology at a college but she is on leave, staying with her friend Lisa.

Norah received her treatment at Phipps-Davison, a famous cancer hospital. Now in remission, Norah is determined to return to school. Her pediatric social worker, Raina Novak warns her it will not be easy.

But returning to school proves far more difficult than Norah ever imagined. First there are all the rules her parents have imposed: no after-school activities, no sleepovers, no school bus, no school lunch and avoiding the bathroom at all cost. Norah immediately notices that no one, not her classmates nor the teachers use the dreaded "cancer" word. Because her hair is short, she is sometimes mistaken for a boy which greatly upsets her. Then there is the attitude of her fellow students to contend with. Norah is considered by some students as "The Girl Who." had cancer. Other students don't like the special treatment Norah receives and believes she wants attention. Norah is also struggling to deal with the fact that many of her best friends did not visit her in the hospital. This includes her close friend Silas Blackhurst.

On her first day, Norah meets Griffin Kirkley, a grade eight student new to Aaron Burr. Norah finds Griffin with his spiky reddish hair, cute. They immediately discover a mutual love of  mythical beasts and Greek myths. However, Norah decides not to tell Griffin about being ill with cancer because she doesn't want him to treat her like her grade seven friends. Griffin is impressed with Norah's artwork and asks her to draw a griffin on his bass guitar. Because of Griffin's interest in the Afterschool program, Norah also decides she wants to be involved and be a part of the Art Club.

In English, Norah reveals that her favourite Greek myth is the one of Persephone who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter discovers where Persephone has been taken and threatens to let everything on earth die if Zeus does not return her to the world above. Hermes is sent by Zeus and convinces Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Persephone has eaten some pomegranate seeds, which are food of the dead. This meant she must return to the underworld. However, Zeus arranges for Persephone to spend half a year in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the year with Demeter. She impresses their English teacher, Ms. Farrell with her knowledge of Greek myths.

Norah struggles in her relationships at school, confronting Silas, confusing her best friend Harper and she begins acting out. She stays for the Afterschool program, disobeying her parents, she skips class to eat lunch with Griffin during grade eight lunch so he won't know she's a grade seven student, and she gets her ears pierced without her parents permission. But when a bake sale for breast cancer deeply upsets Norah, she is forced to face her internal conflict and figure out a way to tell her friends what she's feeling and return to school.


Halfway Normal portrays the journey of twelve-year-old Norah Levy as she re-integrates into life after two years of battling cancer. The novel's main theme is that of empathy and resilience. Norah is eager to attend school but Raina Novak, her pediatric social worker attempts to prepare her for the experience. She warns Norah that it will be challenging. "Don't expect your friendships to be just like they were two years ago. You've been through something very big here, yes, but your friends have been through their own situations, which are big to them. And you haven't been a part of that world." In other words, she's telling Norah that her friends will likely not understand her experience in the same way that Norah will not realize how they have changed over the past two years.

This is initial expressed in the friendship between Norah and Silas Blackhurst, Norah's best friend before she became ill.  Norah and Silas spent their time together before her illness, riding their bikes "patrolling the neighborhood for evil elves." But when Norah returns to school she discovers that Silas has changed; he's interested in girls and he likes Kylie Shen. Norah is baffled by this interest. "...I knew that Kylie was exactly the sort of girl boys crush on. My problem was that I couldn't see Silas being one of those boys. He'd never liked girls before. He'd never even noticed that I was a girl." Norah is angry with Silas because he never came to visit her in the hospital. Although Norah wants to resume her friendship with Silas, it becomes apparent that they have both changed significantly.

Norah views every action of her classmates and teachers as being coloured by their knowledge she had cancer. Addison Ventura  makes a heart sign and Norah believes it "... had to be a cancer reference, because why would Addison heart me?" When Ms. Farrell approaches her in class, smiling, Norah thinks, "As soon as I saw that smile, I knew she knew everything...Probably all the teachers knew. Even the office ladies and the janitors." 

Norah is preoccupied with people knowing about her having cancer and she's unprepared for the variety of reactions she experiences from both her classmates and teachers. Some of her friends are interested and want to know about her illness. While Kylie Shen doesn't want to hear "all the gory details", Harrison Warner wants to know the names of the medications so he can look them up later. Ms. Castro won't say the word "cancer" and encourages her to make use of the elevator instead of the stairs. Norah finds this all very off-putting.

Others feel Norah is using her illness as a means to get attention. Norah's teachers are willing to offer her special consideration; Mr. O'Brien the social studies teacher, offers Norah extra time to complete assignments while Mr. Ludlow the PE teacher tells her she can sit out whenever she wants. Addison believes Norah enjoys this attention and at one point in front of their classmates, Addison claims that Norah is like the human weaver Arachne of Greek mythology, because she likes the attention.

Although most people are well meaning, Norah misinterprets everyone's actions and words. When Ms. Farrell praises Norah about her knowledge of Greek myths and refers to her as their "expert mythologist" to Norah "it sounded like 'expert oncologist'. Which I knew wasn't what she meant, obviously. But all gushy praise sounded suspiciously cancer-related." In Ms. Farrell's English class she believes their first assignment is an attempt to get her "cancer story" and so she produces a composition that receives a low mark. Later on when getting her ears pierced with Aria Maldonado, Norah misinterprets Mrs. Maldonado's offer to pay for her ear piercing and the green dragon earrings as a "cancer consolation prize."

Norah's desire to be free of been known as "cancer girl" leads her to be dishonest with her new friend, Griffin.  Norah avoids telling him that she's been away from school for two years because of cancer. Instead she tells Griffin, she is not new to the school but "More like recycled, actually."  The thought that the grade eight students might know her story is horrifying to Norah. "I was more afraid that once the eighth graders discovered 'my whole story', I'd turn into Cancer Girl for them, just the way I was Cancer Girl for the seventh grade. And if that happened, maybe Griffin would change the way he treated me." Her best friend Harper calls Norah out on her dishonesty toward Griffin, but Norah is not ready to accept this. Instead she doubles down and feels that Harper doesn't understand her situation.

It is an English assignment, to write a five-minute speech from the point of view of mythic character, that helps Norah sort out and explain her complicated feelings about her struggle with cancer. But only after Norah experiences an emotional crisis at the breast cancer bake sale being held by her classmates. Norah balks at the unintended hypocrisy of her classmates like Kylie who wouldn't allow Norah to talk about her cancer but who pins a pink ribbon on her sweater, an others who eat pink-frosted cupcakes but never acknowledge her situation.

Norah feels she can't convey to her friends and classmates what she's experienced. "I couldn't pretend I'd never been sick, because that's who I was. The Girl Who; but I couldn't explain what that meant, because to do it I'd have to speak Martian. So it was like I was trapped halfway between two worlds --Sick and Not Sick- and didn't completely belong in either one." Her tutor, Ayesha explains to Norah that she can only keep moving forward and that she must find a way to help people understand and to give them a chance to understand. Ayesha suggests that maybe Norah doesn't want people to understand. "Because maybe you like that a little bit, feeling that nobody gets what you've been through..." This leads Norah to acknowledge that she feels angry and that she needs to work harder at moving forward in her life.

The result is that Norah acts to move forward. She talks to Griffin about why she never told him about her cancer and eventually apologizes. When Ms. Farrell offers her support after Norah returns to school, Norah thanks her even though she still feels like her teacher wants a cancer story. She doesn't get angry this time when Ms. Farrell asks her to dig deeper into the Persephone myth and eventually comes up with a brilliant interpretation of the myth as it applies to her life.

Halfway Normal succeeds in capturing the complicated emotional life of a young cancer survivor. The dominant theme in the novel is the struggle we all face to share and understand each other's pain - an important life skill. Dee explains to young readers the difference between sympathy and empathy in a English lesson with Ms. Farrell. Norah is unable to empathize with her classmates, believing it is they who need to understand her. In English class she tells Ms. Farrell that she doesn't believe "empathy is always possible...Because sometimes the other person's experience is so weird that you can't put yourself in their shoes. I mean, you may think you can, but you really can't." Similarly her classmates are struggling to understand what Norah has experienced.

Dee creates a rather unlikable character in Norah Levy, putting the reader in a similar situation to that of the characters in the novel; readers experience little sympathy or empathy for her. But as Norah works to express what she's feeling and ultimately succeeds, the reader develops empathy for Norah.

Halfway Normal is populated with very modern characters; her mother, father and his girlfriend end up in a sort of accepting, working, blended family for the benefit of Norah while Ayesha is the token gay character.

Although Barbara Dee's son has had cancer, Dee states that the story in Halfway Normal is not about her son's illness, nor is it based on her family's experience. She mentions that she undertook considerable research for the novel and that is evident in the writing. Halfway Normal is a sensitive, caring exploration of cancer and its toll on a young person but its important message is that of moving forward and of the importance of empathy and resilience.

Book Details:

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee
Toronto: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division    2017
243 pp.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Of Numbers and Stars by D. Anne Love

Of Numbers and Stars is a picture book about a famous Greek mathematician who lived over 1500 years ago in Alexandra, Greece. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Alexandria was considered the center of learning at this time and Theon chose a different path for his daughter. At a time when Greek women were schooled in the arts of the domestic home, she was allowed to study and eventually became an academic at the university. She became a highly respected thinker who delved into science, philosophy and mathematics. 

Hypatia's death is a source of great controversy today. Many books, including unfortunately the Author's Note at the back of Of Numbers and Stars, claim that, St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, urged a mob to attack and murder Hypatia. Unfortunately, many historical events are often interpreted with a very anti-Catholic bias.

It is important to understand the political and social environment which existed in the 5th century in Alexandria. Alexandria was the center of learning at this time, with many important thinkers and a library at the University of Alexandria that was renowned throughout the known world for its large collection of books. At the time of Hypatia's death, Alexandria was a city embroiled in violence between the pagan, Jewish and Christian populations. The Jewish population in 430 A.D. Alexandria was very militant against Christians. The Jews in Alexandria had burned down Christian churches and were determined to persecute Christians and force them out of Egypt. Hypatia, along with the pagan population of Alexandria, sided with the Jews.  St.Cyril, bishop of Alexandria at this time was responsible for ensuring the safety and viability of the Christian church in Egypt.To that end, St. Cyril ordered the burning of the Jewish synagogues in an attempt to halt Jewish aggression. While today this would be considered a crime, in St. Cyril's time such actions were considered necessary to protect the Christian population.

Historical sources, specifically from Socrates, whose writings are considered reliable, indicate that Cyril did not instigate nor participate in the murder of Hypatia. Instead, Socrates states that Hypatia was murdered by a lector (reader) of the Christian church named Peter who led a mob to attack her. Socrates Scholasticus in his book, The Life of Hypatia writes, "Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.

Of Numbers and Stars does not delve into this controversy but instead focuses on imagining Hypatia's early life and her work as a philosopher and mathematician. Sadly there are few primary sources to draw on regarding Hypatia's life but author D. Anne Love weaves a story to inspire young girls.  Love begins her story with a colourful map, locating Alexandria in relation to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  Fleshing out the text are the illustrations of Pam Paparone, rendered in acrylics. The artwork has a decidely classical look which meshes nicely with the story.

Book Details:

Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love
New York: Holiday House       2006

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bang by Barry Lyga

Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody accidentally shot and killed his baby sister, Lola when he was four years old. In an effort to cope with her death all memory of her has been banished from their home by his mother; there are no photographs, no baby album, no physical reminders such as blankets or toys. "She's been extinguished. She's been erased." Sebastian has been told it was an accident, that happened on a Tuesday in June,that he pointed his father's .357 Magnum at his sister as she sat in her bouncy chair.

Ten years later, in June with the school year closing, Sebastian sneaks out of his room at night and bikes to an old, abandoned mobile home. It is here that Sebastian plans to fire another bullet.

 Sebastian's mom hides her grief well but according to Sebastian, "there is always a veil between her mirth and the world..." Dr. Kennedy who is their therapist, believes that Sebastian's mother is the one who is best dealing with what happened years ago. Unfortunately, every time either Sebastian or his mom want to talk about what happened, the other is not willing to talk.

 Sebastian's best friend is Evan Danforth, whose family is very wealthy. Sebastian and Evan have spent every past summer together, but this summer Evan is attending to Young Leaders Camp. This summer his mom wants Sebastian to be productive, to get a job. But because Sebastian believes this summer will be his last, he's not willing to act on  his mother's suggestion.

What Sebastian doesn't count on however, is meeting the new girl who just moved in across the street. When he crashes his bike outside her house Sebastian meets Aneesa Fahim who will be attending the same high school in the fall.  A second bike crash the next day in her driveway, gets Sebastian an invite into Aneesa's home so she can clean the bad scrapes on his knees. He also meets Aneesa's father who is kind and shows interest in Sebastian.

Sebastian and Aneesa's friendship blossoms throughout July. A week after Evan leaves for camp, Sebastian receives an invitation to the Fahim's Fourth of July cookout. He decides to attend and after the barbecue is over, he and Aneesa spend time talking while her parents go to the fireworks. Sebastian tells Aneesa about his ability to make great pizza and she insists that some day he make her one. Throughout July, Aneesa and Sebastian are inseparable, with Sebastian showing her around Brookdale. One of the places he takes her is to the old trailer where he plans to someday kill himself, although he does not tell Aneesa this. At this point Sebastian is beginning to wonder if there might be a chance he doesn't have to kill himself. Afterwards they return to Sebastian's house where Aneesa encourages him to make her his famous pizza. Sebastian's pizza is a success and this leads her to suggest that he should seriously consider selling his pizza. And to that end Aneesa hits on the idea that Sebastian should create his own channel on YouTube to market his pizzas.

At this time Sebastian is given an ultimatum by his mother to get a job for the summer. It is Aneesa who comes to Sebastian's rescue, selling his mother on the idea of Sebastian creating a YouTube channel that features his pizzas. His mother eventually agrees but insists that Sebastian be committed to making this work.

As Sebastian works with Aneesa to develop his YouTube channel, his perspective about his life begins to undergo a radical change. He begins to wonder if maybe he can be happy. Until a series of events pushes Sebastian over the edge.


Bang is a novel about guilt, grief, self-forgiveness and second chances, but mostly about recovering from a mistake so tragic that the consequences can never be undone.  Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody is collapsing under the burden of his guilt over an event he supposedly cannot remember. He accidentally shot his baby sister Lola in the head when he was four years old. No one will talk about what happened, his father has left, there is no evidence in his home or his life that Lola ever existed and he notes that "My sister is in the memory hole because I killed her." All trace of her life has been wiped from their family home, not even a photograph of her remains and at the ten year anniversary of her death, "No one said anything. No one every says anything. Nothing online. Nothing in the Sunday edition of the Lowe County Times..." He also notes that even though his sister's room has not been preserved no one has "moved on. We're all still stuck in place."

Sebastian is so burdened by his pain that he is convinced suicide is the only option left. The voice in his head tells him this. Whenever Sebastian asks the voice if it is time, it always says "No. Not yet."  But just before this summer, the voice said, "Almost. Be ready."  However, after meeting a new neighbour, Aneesa Fahim, Sebastian begins be afraid of what the voice will say. As their friendship develops he begins to rethink his plans and wonders how he will say goodbye to her in the future when his time to end his life arrives. Will he have to? "Unless...Is there any chance? Any chance at all that she could overlook my past? A chance I could stay? " This possibility is frightening to Sebastian.

Unexpectedly, Aneesa creates a sense of hope and possibility within Sebastian. He soon finds he doesn't want to ask the voice if it's time yet, because he doesn't want to know. The voice even tells him all the time he's spending with Aneesa, "cranking out pizzas and videos" is just a distraction from his gruesome end. Sebastian questions himself, "What am I doing? With the pizza stuff, with Aneesa? How have I lost sight of what's important, what matters. The plan I've had for years now, the one that was coming, marching relentlessly toward me." Sebastian promises himself he is still going to "do it."

The beginning of school sees Sebastian experience a series of events that push him towards his original plan. First his English class is assigned to write about a significant life event which to Sebastian means writing about the shooting of Lola. Then when Sebastian gets into a fight over a classmate's derogatory remark about Aneesa, comments are posted about his past and the death of Lola online. Sebastian reaches out to Aneesa for comfort only to realize that his feelings for her are not reciprocated.

This sends Sebastian into a full blown crisis. He has a violent outburst towards his English teacher, Ms. Benitez that results in his parents being called and his retired therapist, Dr. Kennedy contacting him. The voice now tells Sebastian that it's time to follow through on his plan. "It makes perfect sense, suicide does. An end to pain, to misunderstanding. An end to my existence as a walking, talking, living, breathing reminder to my mother of what was taken from her."

At this point in the novel, Lyga employs several plot twists to move the story along; information about exactly what Sebastian remembers and the reason the rundown trailer is so important to him are now revealed. Sebastian, unable to cope any longer with his pain confronts both his father and eventually his mother. He tells his father that suicide offers a means to end the pain. His father manages to show Sebastian that suicide is not the answer, telling him, "...But you got a whole life to live....Your job is to live for yourself, Sebastian. You only get one life. You get one...one chance."  He urges Sebastian to talk to his mother. Sebastian confronts his mother telling her he cannot no longer pretend that nothing has happened and that Lola never existed. "Mom, I have to talk about it. I have to, okay? I can't go on like this. I've been --" but he does not reveal that he has been contemplating suicide. Both of these encounters allow Sebastian and his parents to express and acknowledge their pain and to begin the process of healing. As a result, Sebastian comes to believe that time does not heal wounds. Instead, "We heal wounds.  Not time. Us." The  novel concludes on a positive note, with Sebastian beginning to come to terms with what happened ten years ago

Lyga was inspired to write Bang after his wife noted that there were few novels that dealt with situations where children accidentally shot a family member and how that tragedy affected these children. Although Bang tackles the issues of suicide, and to a lesser extent, gun control and prejudice, the central theme is about healing from a mistake that cannot be undone. “This book is about trying to figure out a way to move on after you have made the mistake that had never been reclaimed or fixed. No level of apology, no level of contrition, no level of atonement will ever come close to repairing the damage you’ve caused—how do you move on?The message is that one tragedy does not define a person and that as Sebastian states in his class assignment at the end, "It was an accident, but not the sort that you can apologize for and fix. You cannot repair this mistake; it lives on. So do I." And that significant events often do not change people - "Most of us just go on, the walking wounded, dealing with our lives." In the end, Sebastian refuses to be pigeon-holed as the boy who killed his sister, just as he refuses to accept Aneesa being pigeon-holed as "Muslim girl eats pizza".

Bang is written from a first person point of view and is divided into three sections, "History" which tells the backstory, "The Present" which relates Sebastian's struggle to cope with the aftermath of the events, and "Tomorrow" which lays out his change of perspective as he begins to heal. Some chapters are very short, others reading like free verse. Overall, Bang is a sensitive, well written novel that treats the subject of loss, suicide and self-forgiveness authentically and with compassion.

Book Details:

Bang by Barry Lyga
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator

Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her tragic attempt to fly around the world still captures the imagination of people everywhere. The Legend of the Lost Aviator presents Amelia's life story beginning with her childhood. Her growing up years were spent in Atchinson, Kansas in her grandparents home. Amelia and her sister, Muriel rode horses, went bike riding, and played tennis and basketball. They also loved to explore the banks of the Missouri River and to pretend to travel all over the world. This latter pastime was to foreshadow Amelia life.

After her beloved grandmother's death, Amelia's family moved frequently, meaning that she attended many different high schools. Her parents eventually separated. Muriel went to college in Toronto, Ontario, while Amelia studied near Philadelphia.

In 1917, with World War I raging, Amelia decide to become a nurses aide and moved to Toronto. Her interest in flying was piqued by a visit to a military air field with her father in 1920. A ride in a plane did exactly the opposite her father was hoping - she

It was unusual for a woman to learn to fly but Amelia managed to take lessons from Neta Snook, a female pilot and instructor. She quickly purchase her first plane, a yellow Kinner Airster, which was a small, very light plane. Although Amelia had several crashes, she remained undaunted.

For a while Amelia settled down to a somewhat normal life, working as a social worker helping immigrant families. But in 1928 Amelia received a phone call that would profoundly change her life and set in motion the events that would lead to tragedy nine years later. George Putnam, a publisher, promoter and Amelia's future husband,invited her to be a part of a flight from Trepassey, Newfoundland to Southampton, England and so become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Although she would not actually fly the plane, Amelia agreed. After this success, Amelia was inspired to not only promote flying as a means of transportation, but to undertake her own daring flights. These flights became longer, set records and became riskier. The last of those flights would be her attempt to fly with Fred Noonan, around the world in 1937. She never completed the flight and exactly what happened to her and Fred remains a mystery to this day.

Canadian award-winning author, Shelley Tanaka has written an engaging account of Amelia Earhart's life and adventures. The Legend of the Lost Aviator is filled with photographs of Amelia, her family and her husband, the planes she flew and of her life promoting flying. Tanaka used Amelia Earhart's own writings as the source for her writing, capturing the determined spirit of Amelia as the world's premier female aviator.  Accompanying Tanaka's well written text are the rich,colourful illustrations of Canadian artist, David Craig. The back of this book contains a list of books, articles and websites for further research.

For more information about Amelia Earhart readers are directed to the Smithsonian Magazine's online website. 

Those who are interested in a picture book devoted to Amelia's flight across the Atlantic should read Robert Burleigh's Night Flight.
Amelia on her aircraft before departing Miami, 1937

Book Details:

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers 2008
48 pp.

Friday, November 10, 2017

DVD: Temple Grandin

"...They knew I was different, but not LESS."

Temple Grandin is a biopic about the famous scientist of the same name, who specializes in animal behaviour and who revolutionized the treatment of animals in the livestock industry. What makes Temple Grandin so unique is that she is autistic. Temple was diagnosed as a child in the 1950's when autistic children were often institutionalized. Her mother courageously refused this path for Temple, instead encouraging, teaching and advocating for her daughter.

Temple's story begins when she is a struggling teenager about to go to college. The story of her childhood is told in flashbacks. In the film, Temple arrives at her Aunt Ann's ranch in the summer. Temple's mother and father have divorced and her mother, Eustacia has remarried (although this is not shown in the movie). Temple has been sent to the ranch to give her mother a break from the summer. It is during her time at the ranch that she begins to discover her true passion - a love and respect for animals.

Temple sees everything in pictures and has a heightened sense of hearing. She looks at the ranch gate and sees angles and geometry. The sounds of the cutlery rattling, the cattle mooing, and the banging of the cattle gates all startle her. Aunt Ann shows Temple her room, and in order to make her feel welcome,  puts a sign up that says "Temple's Room".

Temple's attention is immediately grabbed by the cattle and their response to what is happening to them. She is particularly fascinated by how the cattle are calmed at being placed in the "hug box", leading her to ask a cowboy why this works. He tells her it "gentles" the cattle.

When Temple finds herself overwhelmed and frightened she begins putting herself in the hug box, much to the horror of the cowboys and her Aunt Ann. Otherwise her days at the ranch are filled with interesting things to do and see. She creates a special pulley system for the ranch gate, and learns to ride a horse with a reputation for being unruly and dangerous. When Eustacia visits the ranch she is upset to see that Temple uses the hug box but comes to understand that this calms her daughter. Despite Temple's insistence that she stay on the ranch, Eustacia sends her to Franklin Pierce College in 1966.

At Franklin, Temple's anger at not having a roommate like the rest of the girls, brings the first flashback of the movie. Eustacia remembers taking Temple to a psychologist in 1951. He bluntly tells her that her daughter is clearly autistic, an infantile schizophrenic who will never learn to talk and who should be institutionalized. When Eustacia presses him on other alternatives he tells her there is no treatment and that this is believed to be the result of a lack of bonding with a cold and aloof mother. Eustacia angrily tells the doctor it is Temple who refuses to be hugged. Instead of taking the doctor's advice, Eustacia begins to try to teach Temple to talk, a task that is frustrating.

Life at Franklin Pierce is not easy for Temple. Overwhelmed by the sounds and sensations, she decides to build herself her own hug box out of plywood. However, this is completely misunderstood by the students and faculty. Temple attempts to explain what her "squeeze machine" does, that it makes her feel calm but the doctor interviewing her believes it has a sexual function and the box is removed from her room. Temple returns to her Aunt Ann's ranch where she rebuilds the squeeze machine and she and her mother return to Franklin Pierce to explain how it works. They agree to allow the squeeze box back in Temple's room if she can prove it works by having the students use it and measuring their reactions. When she submits her paper on her research and receives an F, Temple goes into crisis and calls her mentor, Dr. Carlock.

At this point a second flashback tells how Temple came to meet Dr. Carlock when she enrolls in  Hampshire Country School in 1962. After Temple was expelled from her school, her mother took her to this boarding hoping to enroll her. During a meeting with staff, Eustacia decides to leave, believing that the school won't work for Temple. However, Dr. Carlock, who teaches science at Hampshire Country  tells Eustacia that he finds Temple wonderful and that she has done everything right as a parent. He feels the school has much to offer Temple, that they understand how different she is and that this is the first step towards getting Temple out into the world. Temple enrolls at the school and quickly Dr. Carlock comes to understand that Temple is an outstanding visual thinker. When she is ready to move on, but expresses reservations and fear, Dr. Carlock tells Temple to think of college as " a door. A door that's going to open up to a whole new world for you." It is this image that Temple carries with her for the rest of her life and it motivates her now ask that her paper be reconsidered.

Temple working with Dr. Cardstock in the movie.
She is eventually allowed to keep her squeeze machine and her new roommate, Alice who is blind accepts Temple for who she is. The two young women can relate because they experience the world around them in ways that are profoundly different from other people. Temple sees the world in pictures, while Alice sees the world through sound and voices.

Dr. Carlock's image of a door helps Temple as she works her way through college and a Masters of Science in animal science at Arizona Statue and into a career as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals. Temple is shown succeeding through sheer determination and smarts to outwit the obstacles in her path. She becomes a renowned scientist and a voice for people with autism.


Temple Grandin is a moving account of this famous autistic woman's life. The film is both touching and informative as it presents life from the perspective of an individual with autism. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the unique way in which Temple's mind works and how she uses this to make significant contributions in her work with livestock.

From the very beginning of the movie, Temple is shown to think in pictures. For example, she looks at the ranch gate and views it geometrically in angles and shapes. In French class, which Temple hates, she explains to the teacher that she simply looks at the page, sees a picture of it in her mind and then can read what is written from that picture. She thinks literally with pictures; when Aunt Ann tells her they get up with the rooster, Temple pictures them sitting next to the rooster on the barn roof! And when Uncle Mike mentions miracles,  Temple sees an image of Jesus walking on water. Temple also has the ability to see situations on the ranch from an animal's perspective. Curious as to why the cattle are afraid to go into "the dip", Temple gets down on her hands and knees and crawls through the chute, seeing the shadows, glare of sunlight and metal chains that are frightening.

A squeeze machine for autistic individuals.
While Temple understands animals, she doesn't understand people's reactions and they do not understand hers. She doesn't like to be hugged but finds the squeeze machine used to steady cattle during inoculations to be comforting. Temple's resourcefulness leads her to build one for her own use.

The movie highlights her mother Eustacia's relentless efforts to help her becoming a functioning, contributing adult, advocating for her daughter and refusing to institutionalize her when she was a young child. Her efforts are acknowledged by Dr. Carlock but it isn't until the end of the movie when Temple gets up to speak at an autism convention in 1981 that Eustacia realizes that Temple does understand the efforts she's made on her behalf. This is perhaps the most touching moment in the entire movie because Eustacia's efforts have helped Temple to succeed in a way likely neither of them ever dreamed.

Temple's determination to forge her own path, to figure out how to live in a world where she thinks differently and to follow her passion are the focus of this film. And her passion is the humane care of animals raised for food. She explains that the animals deserve our respect and they should not die afraid and in pain. She tells the ranchers and those who run feedlots, "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be." Temple learns how the animals feel, is able to visualize what they see and discovers what frightens them (shadows, lights, and chains) and what calms them. Based on these discoveries, Temple goes about working to change how cattle are treated in an industry rife with concern for animal welfare. She is met with sexism, resistance and anger, but she persists and succeeds. Her design of a curved corral to calm and direct cattle as they are led to "the dip" seems almost self-evident and yet the cattlemen don't understand her new methods at all. As the film credits state, today almost half of cattle in the United States are handled using her methods.

Temple eventually becomes an advocate for autistic individuals, although this is shown only at the very end of the movie in what is a very touching scene. Based on a true event that occurred at a autistic convention, Temple speaks up, explaining how her mind works and why she behaves in certain ways. For the first time, parents and doctors are hearing what it's like to be autistic from an person with autism.

That the movie Temple Grandin succeeds in portraying all of this is amazing and is in large part due to actress Claire Danes' brilliant performance as Temple Grandin. Danes gives a believable and touching performance that offers a window on how the autistic brain works. Dane captures Temple's frustrations, her joy when she succeeds and her resourcefulness and determination. Her performance won her an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award. She spent considerable time preparing for the role, learning Grandin's way of speaking and her awkward movements. Danes also has stated that she had to force herself not to emotionally connect with the other actors on the set. For Temple Grandin it was rewarding seeing herself portrayed so accurately and she was thrilled to see her revolutionary "dip" recreated exactly as she designed it.

Catherine O'Hara and Julia Ormond supply incredible supporting performances as Aunt Ann and as Eustacia.  David Straitharn captures a kind, patient and understanding Dr. Carlock who helps Temple face her fears and who guides her. Directed by Mick Jackson, Temple Grandin is a remarkable film about a remarkable, talented scientist and woman.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky

Cloth Lullaby presents the life an work of avant-garde French artist, Louise Bourgeois who is best remembered for her sculptures of giant spiders. Louise Josephine, born on Christmas Day in 1911 in Paris, France, was named after her parents, Louis Bourgeois and Josephine Fauriaux. Her family consisting of an older sister and younger brother, lived above their shop in the genteel St. Germain neighbourhood, where they sold tapestries.The Bourgeois's also had a villa and workshop in the countryside, where they worked to restore damaged antique tapestries.

When Louise was growing up, she was often recruited to help restore these tapestries during the weekends. At the age of twelve she would draw in the missing areas of damaged tapestries. In her teen years, Louise attended Lycee Fenelon in Paris. Her childhood was marred by an unhappy home life. Louise was very close to her mother but her father was unfaithful to her mother. His mistress lived with the family creating a great deal of tension in their home life. Louise was also unable to live up to her father's expectations.

In 1930, she attended the Sorbonne, where she studied math and philosophy. But,when her mother passed away in 1932, Louise was inspired to switch to studying art. From 1934 to 1938 she studied at various schools including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Academie Ranson, the Academie Julian and several others. Although she initially studied painting, Louise was told she should become a sculptor. She began to draw on the upsetting experiences of her childhood as her creative inspiration. Her first exhibition was in the Salon d'Automne in 1938. Louise also opened a print shop in a section of her father's tapestry shop. Her father did not support her choice to become an artist but he did allow her the use of part of the family's shop. It was in the print shop that she met her future husband, American art historian, Robert Goldman. They married in 1938 and Louise emigrated to New York where her husband was employed at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts as an art professor.

A young Louise Bourgeois. 1946
Louise joined the Art Students League, an art school in Manhattan where she worked on her technique as a painter. Over the course of the next four years she had three children, (the first adopted from France). In the 1950's Louise and Robert returned to France for a short period of time. She also began therapy after her father's death and continued for almost thirty years. By the 1960's Louise began to experiment with many different materials including wood, rubber, latex and marble.

Over the years, her art became a sort of therapy for Louise, in which she dealt with the anger over her father's infidelity to her mother and the presence of his mistress in her life. Spirals, spiders and cages are several of the forms Louise used to express certain ideas. For example, the spiral was termed by Louise as "a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them. . . Later I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral - I love the spiral - represents control and freedom."

Spiders first appeared in Louise's work in the 1940's but it wasn't until the 1990's that she created the spider sculptures for which she is famous. The spider represented her mother who was her best friend. "The spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver...Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."

Maman sculpture
Cloth Lullaby opens with Louise's childhood, painting it as somewhat idyllic, as would be expected for a children's picture book. Novesky brings to the attention of readers, Louise's childhood love of the world around her, especially the trees and the river. The picture book then moves on to explore the impact her family's tapestry heritage had on her art. To Louise repairing the threads of damaged tapestries were a reminder of the work of spiders as they spin their webs. Mentioned are Louise's use of spirals, her interest in body parts, and of course her interest in weaving. Although many books focus on Louise's strange sculptures, Cloth Lullaby emphasizes her use of fabric. Her fabric collages and cloth drawings were "her way to make things whole." Louise's love of her mother and her attempts to keep the memory of her mother are also mentioned. Cloth Lullaby sprinkles quotes from Louise throughout and pictures of her strange spider sculptures are also included.

Accompanying this text are the unique illustrations of artist Isabelle Arsenault, done in ink, pencil, pastel, watercolor and Photoshop. This is a lovely picture book that captures the special talent of Louise Bourgeois.

Book Details:

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers         2016

Sunday, November 5, 2017

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

That Burning Summer covers a series of fictional events during the summer of 1940, just as World War II is ramping up. Set in the Romney coast area of England the story opens in July just after Peggy Fisher, her younger brother Ernest and her mother have been forced to leave their home in Lydd near the coast and move to the farmhouse by Snargate where her mother grew up. The army has requisitioned their house so they have moved in with Uncle Fred, Aunt Myra and Cousin June and her baby daughter Claudette. The story is told from three points of view, that of Peggy, Ernest and Henryk.

Eleven-year-old Ernest is obsessed with the Leaflet that has been circulated by the Ministry of Information and the War Office about what to do if the German's invade. But Peggy is sick of hearing him talk about it and reminds him that "It says 'If the invader comes." Not 'When the invader comes.'" However, Ernest believes it's best to be prepared and can't understand Peggy's lack of interest.

Ernest ignores his sister's instructions to return home and instead rides his bike to the shore where he stands looking towards France. The instructions in the leaflet weigh heavily on his mind as he worries what he would do if the Germans invaded. He sees the coils of barbed wire along the shoreline and the low concrete buildings called blockhouses. As he's riding back towards home, Ernest hears a plane falling from the sky, on fire, black smoke trailing behind. The sight and sound of the plane causes him to crash his bike and lose his glasses so he thinks it has crashed into Walland Marsh. What he doesn't see is the pilot parachuting to the ground. When Ernest returns home to tell his family what he saw he is sent to the Land Defense Volunteers to make a report. The volunteers set out to where Ernest believes the plane went down and find evidence of the crashed plane but by this time it has sunk into the marsh and as everyone believes, along with the pilot too.

However it turns out that the pilot did survive. Polish airman, Henryk had just survived an encounter with German enemy fighters and set off in pursuit of a single plane heading towards France. He never saw the plane that hit him. Henryk falls out of the plane and manages to engage his parachute, but he hits the ground hard causing him to sprain his ankle. Shaken and covered in fuel, he is able to pack up his parachute and hide it, and hobble towards a line of trees.

That night Peggy, unable to sleep, decides to check the hen house door. Drawn to the hen house by the chickens squawking, she discovers a dirty, frightened man with no boots, wearing a flight suit and goggles on his head. He tells Peggy he cannot go back and reveals that he is a Polish pilot with the RAF and introduces himself as Henryk. Torn between turning him in and helping him, Peggy decides to hide him for the night in the abandoned church. She fetches him a pair of boots and her father's old clothing and leads him to the church before heading home.

In the morning Peggy is preoccupied with what happened during the night. Is she a traitor? She's supposed to report him to the nearest authority. She decides she will feed the missing pilot and then send him on his way. But things are not so simple. When she offers Henryk a way they can come forward, his overwhelming fear is evident. Peggy decides she will wait. What she doesn't expect is that as the days pass they will become friends and that things will become more complicated than she ever anticipated.


That Burning Summer is one of several recent young adult novels exploring life in England during World War II. In this novel, the setting is the very south of England, in the Kent and Romney Marsh area which is just across the English Channel from France. The English, particularly people living in this area were understandably nervous about the real possibility of a German invasion.

By July of 1940, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemborg, Norway and France had surrendered to Germany after being invaded. Finland was captured by the Soviet Union. In June, 1940, Germany invaded the Channel Islands and in July, 1940 what was to become known as the Battle of Britain, had begun. Hitler had already signed off on a planned invasion of Britain, known as Operation Sea Lion. If an invasion was to happen, the flat coast and accessible beaches of this area offered a prime location for the Germans to land. As Syson mentions in her novel, the beaches were covered with rolls of concertina wire which also identified areas that were mined. In addition concrete pillboxes or blockhouses were also constructed along the coast as another layer of defense. The LDV (Local Defense Volunteers) was set up, comprised of men who were ineligible for military service. Their purpose was to slow down the invading troops, providing regular military units a chance to reorganize.

Syson effectively captures the uncertainty and fear many English felt in the summer of 1940 with frequent mention of the booming sounds coming from France, "the thunder across the sea." However despite their fear, each of the characters in the book reaches deep inside to act courageously. This fear is especially evident in the character of Ernest who is eleven-years-old at the beginning of the novel. His fear is shown by his obsessive attention to a pamphlet detailing what to do should England be invaded. Ernest has memorized the pamphlet and reminds himself to follow the tips for spotting an invader. He worries about almost every aspect of the invasion, about recognizing the enemy, about whether the church bells will be able to be rung in time, about whether they will hear them.

Ernest is shown to be very much like his father who is an artist and someone who abhors killing anything. When Ernest comes across the dead moles he feels disgusted and doesn't want to be involved in checking the traps but doesn't know how to tell his Uncle Fred this. "Ernest couldn't possibly tell him the truth about how her felt, though Dad would understand, of course. He didn't think it was silly or squeamish. A dead animal, in your bare hands, that you've killed yourself...? Ernest shuddered, imagining the feel of a stiff, cold body, hard under velvet." The gun given to him by Uncle Fred on his twelfth birthday is not something he's happy to receive.

Ernest is convinced he has LMF - Lack of Moral Fiber a term coined to describe RAF flyers too afraid to fly anymore. "But it's just the same, isn't it? I haven't got the moral fiber to go trapping with Uncle Fred. Or rabbit-hunting. I'm too scared. I'm no good at that kind of thing. A coward. They used to shoot cowards, you know." When Ernest visits Henryk alone, he is trying to determine is Henryk is who he claims to be. Instead he learns about courage and why some people can no longer be brave. Henryk suggests that courage is like a bank and that it can be used up and that it cannot be made on its own. "Can you make it from nothing? I don't think so. I think perhaps...I think you get courage from other people. Bur when they go, it gets harder and harder. And when you know you have just a little left, and just a few people, it seems to go faster and faster. Until you are like me. Ernest, I have to tell you...I have none left. Not even the courage to die when I wished it..."

When Ernest learns the truth about his father, that he is a pacifist who took the peace pledge, he's devastated. Ernest believed is father was overseas fighting in the war.  Instead, he went away to Eastbourne where he helped conscientious objectors prepare for their hearings. Eventually he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for handing out leaflets and newsletters outside the conscription office. Peggy reveals that their mom never told anyone in their village because she felt ashamed.  Ernest feels ashamed of his father and is determined to be different. "Ernest set the gun on his shoulder. Be like Dad, the posters said. But he would be better than his dad." He would reveal Henryk. However, Ernest ends up not facing Henryk, but a real spy, determined to silence Peggy, Ernest and Victor. When Peggy tells Ernest to run and get help, he refuses to leave her and tries to help.

Through the character of Henryk, the devastating reality of the war in Europe is shown. When Henryk's homeland of Poland was invaded as part of the Polish airforce he fought the Nazis. Unsuccessful, he was forced to flee, enduring the pain of leaving his beloved country, travelling through Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea to Constantinople and then to Beirut. At a camp in Beirut Henryk learned from his sister Gizela's letter that their parents have been murdered by the Nazis and later that his three sisters have also been murdered. Eventually he made his way to Britain where he became part of the RAF. However, when he is shot down over Romney Marsh, Henryk is unable to turn himself in to authorities. He can no longer fly and fight. His courage is gone. Peggy recognizes that Henryk is not well. She explains to Ernest, "He twisted his ankle. But that's better now really. He's hurt in another way though. Not the kind of hurt they can do anything about in hospital, I don't think. It means he can't fly." Although Henryk believes he has no courage left, he decides to leave to protect Peggy, and on his way encounters Peggy and Ernest being attacked. Risking everything, Henryk comes to their aid, firing his revolver, something Peggy would not have believed him capable of doing just a day earlier.

Peggy must deal with her growing conflict over hiding Henryk who would be considered a deserter and the fact that she is falling in love with him. At first hiding Henryk "was like carrying around a boulder, this mistake she had made: huge and indigestible, it weighed her down." "For the first time she began to fear for herself. Maybe she was a traitor already. After all, she'd encouraged someone not to do his duty. That was a kind of treachery." Peggy remembers that they hung traitors so she decides she will feed the missing pilot and then send him on his way. But seeing Henryk's fear she understands that he is unable to fly. With compassion she hides and feeds Henryk, not knowing what the future holds. Peggy too shows courage when she comes to the aid of Victor, whom she despises, but who is being drowned by the spy. "She had no hope of rescuing Victor...She was sinking. It felt hopeless. Yet Peggy refused to give up. Mrs. Velvick could not lose another son." 

The strength in That Burning Summer is its wonderful portrayal of the uncertainty and fear of the English as well as their stout determination to defend their country as the Battle of Britain begins. Syson brings the novel to an exciting conclusion and ties up all the loose ends by jumping ahead to the end of the war in 1946 in an Epilogue. The novel is rounded out with a Historical Afterword that explains about the LMF designation, peace protests, missing pilots, spies and Polish pilots in Britain. This novel would have done nicely with a map of the Romney Marsh area, and perhaps a more mysterious cover suited to the story. In her Acknowledgements, it is evident Syson did considerable historical research for That Burning Summer.

For information on the Romney Coast area during World War II, readers are directed to Romney Marsh The Fifth Continent .

Picture credits:
Romney Marsh Map: https://www.theromneymarsh.net/#marsh

Book Details:

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson
New York: Sky Pony Press          2013
298 pp.